Lou Gehrig (June 19, 1903 - June 2, 1941) was a baseball player
and member of the United States Baseball Hall of Fame.
He was born on Manhattan island in New York, New York, the son of German
immigrants. He attended Columbia University, where he was a member of a
fraternity, Phi Delta Theta. However, he could not play intercollegiate baseball
since he played baseball for a summer professional league during his freshman
Lou Gehrig was a powerful first baseman, a fine fielder, and loyal teammate. If
he was not quite the player his teammate Babe Ruth was, he was a feared
sidekick, and a more reliable presence in the lineup.
Gehrig played for the New York Yankees, first base, from 1923-1939. In his
career he hit 493 home runs and played in 2,130 consecutive games, an endurance
record that stood until 1996 when Cal Ripken, Jr broke it.
Gehrig's streak began when he pinch-hit for Pee-Wee Wanninger on June 1, 1925.
The next day, Wally Pipp, the regular first baseman, had a headache, so Gehrig
started at first base. He would remain there until 1939.
Lou Gehrig won the American League's Most Valuable Player Award twice. The first
time, in 1927, was considered controversial: it was the year Ruth hit 60 home
runs, but Ruth was not eligible for the award under the rules of the time,
having won it before (in 1923). Gehrig did, however, lead the AL with 175 runs
batted in. Gehrig won the award again in 1936, with one of his finest offensive
At the midpoint of the 1938 season, Lou Gehrig's performance began to drastically
diminish. At the end of that season, he said, "I'm tired midseason. I don't know
why, but I just couldn't get going again." Eleanor was afraid it was caused by a
brain tumor. Gehrig told her that he had been feeling the strength ebb away in
his legs since his 30th birthday.
Lou Gehrig had also become increasingly clumsy and weak, and would sometimes
fall down in the locker room and on the field for no apparent reason. Most
reporters and fans believed that it was due to the cumulative effect of injuries
and the wear and tear of the streak, of the toll that 14 years of professional
baseball had taken on his body. At age 35, however, Gehrig was still a
relatively young man and his teammates thought that he had at least a couple of
more seasons left in him. His final 1938 stats were well above the league
averages: .295 batting average, 114 RBI, 170 hits, .523 slugging average, 758
plate appearances with only 75 strikeouts. Ruth's statistics in his final
playing years weren't much better — and Ruth wasn't dying.
After the season ended, Gehrig felt his strength and coordination slipping away.
He went to a specialist in New York for the first time since the beginning of
the slump. The specialist's "guess" was that Gehrig had a gall bladder
condition. Eleanor didn't think this diagnosis made much sense, but Gehrig
trusted the specialist. Either way, truth or not, Gehrig set his mind to
recovering and remaining reliable for the Yankees. His loyalty was so great that
when the Yankees cut his 1939 salary $3,000 from 1938's salary, Gehrig made no
attempt to negotiate further.
When spring training began in 1939, Gehrig still did not have the strength he
used to have. In true Gehrig fashion, he forced himself to train harder, but
there was no improvement. His 1939 statistics were the lowest of his career: 8
games, 34 plate appearances, 4 hits, 1 RBI, and a .143 batting average. Even
Gehrig's baserunning was affected. Throughout his career, Gehrig was considered
a fearsome baserunner, but by 1939 he had so badly lost control of his muscles
that even the simple task of running became a liability.
Reporters and fans continued to have their own guesses as to the cause of
Lou Gehrig's sudden statistical collapse. James Kahn, a reporter who wrote often
about Gehrig, said in one article:
"I think there's something wrong with him. Physically wrong, I mean. I don't
know what it is. But I am satisfied that it goes far beyond his ball-playing. I
have seen ballplayers 'go' overnight, as Gehrig seems to have done. But they
were simply washed up as ballplayers. It's something deeper than that in this
"I have watched him very closely and this is what I have seen: I have seen him
time a ball perfectly, swing on it as hard as he can, meet it squarely - and
drive a soft, looping fly over the infield. In other words, for some reason that
I do not know, his old power isn't there.... he is meeting the ball, time after
time, and it isn't going anywhere."
Bill Dickey, Lou Gehrig's best friend and road roommate, knew before most that
Gehrig was suffering some kind of physical problem. One day Gehrig could not
open a bottle of ketchup, and Dickey had to do it for him — a man who could
bench press hundreds of pounds could not take the cap off a bottle.
Joe McCarthy was facing increasing pressure from Yankee management to switch
Gehrig to a part-time role, but he could not bring himself to do it. Things came
to a head when Gehrig had to struggle to make a routine put-out at first base.
The second baseman, Johnny Murphy, consistently had to wait for Gehrig to drag
himself over to the bag so he could catch Murphy's throw. Murphy said, "Nice
play, Lou." That was the thing Gehrig dreaded — his teammates felt they had to
congratulate him on simple chores like put-outs, like older brothers patting
their little brother on the head.
On April 30, Gehrig went hitless against the weak Washington Senators. Gehrig
had just played his 2,130th consecutive major league game.
On May 2, the next game after a day off, Gehrig approached McCarthy before the
game and said, "I'm benching myself, Joe." McCarthy acquiesced and put Ellsworth
'Babe' Dahlgren in at first base, and also said that whenever Gehrig wanted to
play again the position was his. Gehrig himself took the lineup card out to the
shocked umpires before the game.
A friend advised Eleanor to call Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Her call
was immediately transferred to Dr. Charles Mayo, who had been following Gehrig's
career and his mysterious loss of strength. Dr. Mayo told Eleanor to bring
Gehrig as soon as possible. She agreed to convince Gehrig to go on one
condition: that she be the first and only person given his full prognosis. In a
typical gender stereotype of the day, Dr. Mayo hesitated, saying that policy was
to only give full disclosure to the head of the household. Eleanor told him that
she was the one who controlled the household finances, so she was the only head
of the household.
Eleanor quickly arranged for Gehrig to fly to Rochester from Chicago, where the
Yankees were at the time, and he arrived at Mayo Clinic on June 13, 1939. The
first doctor to meet with Gehrig, Dr. Harold C. Habein, didn't even have to
touch him. Dr. Habein took one look at Gehrig's walk and knew what was wrong
from his gait and posture — it was the same disease that had killed Dr. Habein's
own mother just months before, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Dr. Habein clearly
remembered the distorted facial expression and shuffling walk of his mother, and
Gehrig was showing the same symptoms.
Lou Gehrig stayed at Mayo Clinic for the next six days, and on June 19, Gehrig's
36th birthday, the diagnosis was confirmed. Per Eleanor's request, Mayo Clinic
called her before telling Gehrig himself. She got the full prognosis: expect
rapid paralysis, increasing trouble swallowing and speaking, no loss of mental
ability, and a life expectancy of less than three years. Eleanor was told that
the cause of ALS was unknown but it was painless, non-contagious and cruel — the
nervous system was destroyed but the mind was intact. Victims are completely
aware of their surroundings and of their physical wasting.
This was not the prognosis given to Gehrig himself, as Eleanor requested. He was
told he had ALS but that there would not be any terrible impact on his life. For
the three days following the diagnosis, Mayo staff took him fishing on the lakes
surrounding Rochester to help him come to terms with his diagnosis before
sending him back to Eleanor and his life. He was unaware that Eleanor knew more
than he did. In a letter Gehrig wrote to "break the news" to Eleanor, he said
"The bad news is lateral sclerosis, in our language chronic infantile paralysis.
There isn't any cure... there are very few of these cases. It is probably caused
by some germ...Never heard of transmitting it to mates... There is a 50-50
chance of keeping me as I am. I may need a cane in 10 or 15 years. Playing is
out of the question."
Perhaps, however, Gehrig knew he was dying. He was greeted by a group of Boy
Scouts at the train station in Washington, where he caught up with the Yankees
after his Mayo Clinic visit. The boys happily waved and wished him luck with the
series. Gehrig waved back, but leaned forward to his companion, a reporter, and
said, "They're wishing me luck - and I'm dying."
On June 21, the Yankees announced that Lou Gehrig was retiring due to his illness,
but would remain with the team as a captain.
In 1939, Gehrig retired from the sport because he had Amyotrophic lateral
sclerosis. The dreadful degenerative disease so rare that it would be called
from then on as
"Lou Gehrig's Disease".
“The Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth”
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The New York Yankees celebrated "Lou Gehrig Day" on July 4, 1939, between games
of a holiday doubleheader against the Washington Senators. Dozens of people,
including many from other major league teams, came forward to give Gehrig gifts
and to shower praise on the dying slugger. The 1927 World Championship banner,
from Gehrig's first World Series win, was raised on the flagpole, and the
members of that championship team, known as "Murderer's Row", attended the
Babe Ruth was one of the notable speakers. During the twilight of Ruth's career,
which coincided with Lou Gehrig's rise, Ruth made snide remarks about the streak,
saying that Gehrig needed to either sit on the bench or go fishing (a passion
shared by both men). In his speech that day, Ruth suggested again that Gehrig go
fishing, but it was an encouragement this day instead of a wisecrack. Joe
McCarthy, whose relationship with Gehrig was almost a father-son bond, was
apprehensive about speaking, because he knew if he started crying it would make
it harder for Gehrig to get through the ceremony. McCarthy's most memorable line
was when he assured Gehrig that he was never a burden to the team, no matter
what Gehrig thought of himself.
The Yankees retired Gehrig's uniform number 4, making him the first player in
history to be afforded that honor. Gehrig was given many gifts, commemorative
plaques, and trophies. Some came from VIPs; others came from the stadium's
groundskeepers and janitorial staff. The Yankees gave him a silver trophy with
their signatures engraved on it. Inscribed on the front was a special poem
written by New York Times writer John Kieran. The trophy cost only about $5, but
it became one of Gehrig's most prized possessions.
After the presentations, Lou Gehrig was asked if he wanted to speak. The shy, quiet
Gehrig became nervous from emotion, and asked sportswriter Sid Mercer to speak
on his behalf. Mercer told the crowd that Gehrig was too moved to speak himself,
and Gehrig began to leave the field with McCarthy. The crowd rose to its feet
and began to chant, over and over, "We want Gehrig!" Gehrig felt at that point
he had to say something and he turned around to head back to home plate, which
surprised McCarthy, who assisted him back to the microphones. Gehrig took a few
moments to compose himself, then approached the microphone, and addressed the
"Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break I got. Yet
today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been
to ballparks for seventeen years and I have never received anything but kindness
and encouragement from you fans. Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t
consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one
day? Sure I’m lucky. Who wouldn’t have considered it an honor to have known
Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To
have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to
have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student
of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I'm
lucky. When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat
and vice versa, sends you a gift, that’s something. When everybody down to the
groundskeepers and those boys in the white coats remember you with trophies,
that’s something. When you have a father and mother who work all their lives so
that you can have an education and build your body, it's a blessing. When you
have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you
dreamed existed, that's the finest I know. So I close by saying that I might
have been given bad break, but I've got an awful lot to live for. Thank you."
The crowd stood and applauded for almost two minutes. Gehrig was visibly shaken
as he stepped away from the microphone, and wiped the tears away from his face
with his handkerchief. Babe Ruth came over and hugged him. Gehrig left the
field, and did not calm down until he was safe in his home with Eleanor.
Lou Gehrig died in Riverdale, New York. This was the first of a long line of
premature deaths for the most powerful Yankee sluggers. Ruth himself died young
of cancer, as did Roger Maris. Mickey Mantle also died before his time.
The Pride of the Yankees, a 1942 film aboutLou Gehrig's life, featured Gary Cooper
as Lou and Teresa Wright as his wife Eleanor. It received 11 Academy Award
nominations, but only garnered one win. Real-life Yankees Babe Ruth, Bob Meusel,
Mark Koenig and Bill Dickey, then still an active player, played themselves, as
did sportscaster Bill Stern. The film incorrectly suggests that Gehrig did not
play at all until the 1925 season, when his streak began. He did play briefly in
the 1923 and 1924 seasons, although he was not on the World Series roster in
1923. The film also alters his farewell speech, with the "luckiest man" line
coming at the end, rather than the beginning. In a famous scene, Gehrig visits a
crippled boy named Billy (Gene Collins) in a hospital and promises to hit two
home runs for him in a single World Series game; Gehrig successfully fulfills
his promise, and an older Billy attends Lou Gehrig Day and shows Gehrig that he
can walk without a limp, as if the illness had never happened. This event, a
takeoff on something that happened to Babe Ruth, was parodied on a 1995 episode
of Seinfeld ("The Wink," in which the promise was made by guest-star Paul
O'Neill) and in the movie Baseketball.
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